afro-Caribbean girls with a union jack

The Voice

Introduction

First published in 1982, The Voice newspaper is “committed to celebrating black experience” and aims to deliver “positive change” by “informing the black community on important issues”. With its news stories, in-depth interviews, opinion pieces and investigations, The Voice remains “Britain’s most successful black newspaper”.

For the AQA Media Studies exam, we are going to focus on its website (voice-online.co.uk) and social media profile, exploring representation and audience. We will begin with a look at the media industry.

The Media Landscape

The production, distribution and circulation of The Voice has changed dramatically since its first edition. The publishers had to respond to the impact of new technology was having on the way audiences were consuming texts, especially the movement away from physical media to online products and downloads. This change in consumption forced the newspaper to focus more on its digital output.

Financing

David Hesmondhalgh believed companies involved in cultural industries were motivated by profit rather than a duty to public service broadcasting. No one was going to invest in a newspaper which targeted a niche audience unless it was going to make money. However, the social and political context of the early 1980s offered the founder of The Voice, Val McCalla, an opportunity to raise the funds needed for such a risky venture.

Barclays Bank was being heavily criticised for its investments in South Africa where racial segregation was institutionalised in a system known as apartheid. In a bit of impression management, the bank attempted to counteract the negative publicity by showing support for African-Caribbean causes.

McCalla secured £62,000 from Barclays with the backing of the Loan Guarantee Scheme which was part of a series of initiatives set up by Margaret Thatcher’s government to help unemployed people start their own business. The Voice enterprise was a success and the bank loan was paid off within five years.

The circulation of the paper peaked at 55,000 in the early 1990s with young women being a substantial majority of its weekly buyers.

The Jamaican Takeover

Paying over £3m, The Gleaner Company took ownership of the newspaper in 2004. They are a Jamaican newspaper and media enterprise. Their subsidiary, GV Media Group, still publishes the paper today.

At that point, the newspaper had already “suffered from a decline in advertising revenue and increased competition”. While marketing agencies were moving online to meet their target audience and the demand for print continued to fall, The Gleaner Company believed their purchase of The Voice was a “golden opportunity to better serve our readers of the diaspora”.

Changes in Consumption

The shift in the publishing from print media to digital formats has been dramatic. Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking he Unthinkable”  is a great summary of the threat the newspaper industry faced from online competition, but you probably already know Teen Vogue is no longer available as a glossy magazine and Oh Comely sold its last copy in 2021. Inevitably, The Voice moved from weekly to monthly editions.

Production costs are generally cheaper for online newspapers compared to the traditional tabloid. After some upfront expenditure to design and build a functioning website, the main running costs are for hosting, maintenance and security.

Consumers often prefer the digital format because they can access the site at a time that suits their lifestyle and routine. There is no need to wait until next month’s edition to get the story behind the headlines.

The relationship between producers and audiences has also shifted. The publishers promote their content on various social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Most posts will direct you to the main website, but The Voice will also retweet and share posts from other institutions to increase the level of engagement with their primary audience.

Although this connection and level of interactivity is expected by digital natives, an older audience might still prefer the feel of print between their fingers.

The End of Audience

In We The Media, Dan Gillmor (2004) explored the changes in the news industry. He argued grassroots journalists were a serious threat to the monopolies enjoyed by big media conglomerates. The “official” news organisations are no longer writing the “first draft of history” because “the audience is learning how to get a better, timelier report”.

This sort of citizen journalism is a good example of Clay Shirky’s concept of mass amateurisation.

The Voice will struggle to be heard by an audience who prefer the quick and easy comment culture of social media rather than long-form journalism.

Advertising

The profitability of a newspaper really depends on its advertising revenue, including the classified ads for institutions who are wanting to hire new employees. According to an article from The Independent, council recruiting carried The Voice during the recession years of the 1980s.

Although the publishers continue to make money through subscriptions and single-copy sales of the print edition, the online version from display ads and advertorials.

Display Ads

If you agree to the use of non-essential cookies, you will see personalised ads curated by Google Ads. The company knows your name, gender and birthday. They will have also tracked your search history and which sites you have visited. Google uses this data to serve ads they think will be most relevant to each user. When you search for new laptop, you will begin to see ads for laptops.

These ads appear as banners just beneath the header and above the footer. They are also placed in the sidebar on wider screens. The following advertisement is delivered by Google and is based on the data points it knows about you:

Advertorials

Some advertisements resemble news stories and follow the same template as the real posts, but the mode of address is closer to a press release than a journalist’s report. For example, if a gallery in London is featuring a black artist, they could write an article for The Voice and reach a key target demographic.

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK require advertorials to be clearly labelled as paid content to “ensure that readers are not confused about whether copy is marketing material or editorial”. You can find out more about the regulation of advertorials from their guidance on the remit, presentation and content of advertisement features.

Advertorials are categorised as sponsored on The Voice website. You can view the material here: https://www.voice-online.co.uk/sponsored/.

Representation

Before the introduction of The Voice, the black press in Britain targeted first-generation immigrants. Newspapers, such as The Caribbean Times and West Africa, kept the diaspora up to date about news about the old countries. The Voice was different. It wanted to publish stories which were relevant to the second generation who were born and raised in Britain.

They were eager to create a countertype to the negative portrayals of black people often represented in the mainstream media. This was particularly important after the civil unrest across England in 1981.

Was there a riot in Brixton or was it an uprising against social and economic injustice? Language matters. Consider the following front cover from The Sun:

front page of the sun newspaper
1981 Front Page

The headline reinforces the binary opposition between the civilised England and the savage Other. The audience are positioned to sympathise with the cowering police officers who are under attack. They are almost protecting the viewer from the violence and the side-turned and torched vehicle is a strong signifier of the destruction they are trying to prevent.

Although the newspaper has been criticised as a “doom-and-gloom sheet”, The Voice continues to construct a positive profile of the black community. Go to the newspaper’s website and start analysing a few articles.

Codes and Conventions

The Voice Online follows many of the basic conventions of web design. As expected, the header consists of a logo, which links to the homepage, a horizontal menu with the main categories, a subscription button, and the social media links. There is also a search function available by clicking the magnifying icon. The hamburger icon loads a full list of categories and subcategories. This expandable list is particularly useful on mobile devices. Finally, if you hover over any of the main categories on a larger device, a submenu will appear:

screenshot of the voice website
Screenshot from The Voice

This straightforward interface enables users to quickly understand the structure of the website and to navigate to the sections which are relevant to their interests.

Category and Archive Pages

The homepage and category pages contain a collection of links to the news stories making the headlines. Inspired by social media feeds, such as the Instagram and Twitter interfaces, the use of cards is a very popular convention in website design. Each card includes a thumbnail signifying the key themes of the post, a category link, and a headline. These excerpts act as enigma codes which encourage the reader to find out more.

These cards are organised into grids – a layout which echoes the traditional frontpages of newspapers and is frequently used for online newspapers, magazines and blogs.

The website is responsive so the cards scale and reorientate to match the user’s viewport. The grids should always fit the size of your screen because the webpage knows when you have reached a breakpoint and the number of columns and rows change. If resize your browser on a desktop computer, for example, and shrink the width, the number of columns will shift from three to one.

The category and archive pages are organised into modules, so each grid relates to particular subcategory. For example, the sport page contains separate modules for athletics, boxing and football. There is a sense of hierarchy because the cards for the top stories are larger than the others. This framing device helps set the agenda.

Finally, the footer is at the bottom of each page and contains the typical links to the privacy policy, copyright information and contact us page.

Individual Posts

Each article follows the template. First, breadcrumbs help the user understand where the story fits into the site’s permalink structure and enables you to navigate to the parent category pages. This element is followed by the dateline and a clickable byline. The author’s avatar is hidden on mobile devices.

the voice post layout
Mockup of the Voice Online

Next, the post’s headline is given prominence through the use of a large font (1.375rem), dark colour (#393939) and a bold weight (400). The kicker uses a lighter colour (#626262) and a smaller font size (0.8125rem). Put simply, the headline looks like a headline with a different typeface from the rest of the copy – the more formal serif called FreightText.

The social share buttons are provided by the AddThis – a company which aims to help businesses “develop a more personal and effective relationships with their current and future customers”. Looking like a natural part of the webpage experience because of the inline design and use of brand colour (#d41224), the share buttons are a subtle way to encourage readers to share the articles on their own social channels and become ambassadors for The Voice.

The featured image is the final element above the fold. It will be the same image used in the cards in the category pages. A caption provides anchorage to help us decode the preferred reading.

Then we are into the story. The main copy is left-aligned with a ragged-right edge. The font family is a modern sans serif called Swiss721BT-Regular. The use of images and pull quotes help divide some of the long-form content.

The mode of address depends on the article. The opinion pieces contain more emotive language and the sports commentary is often hyperbolic, but articles tend to be quite formal and direct.

The posts conclude with a comments section so readers a chance to have their opinions heard. User-generated content is another typical feature of website design.

Further Reading

For the vast majority of questions, you are expected to demonstrate the relevancy of media theory by trying to apply the critical framework to The Voice. Therefore, you should critically assess a range of stories and then refer to important signifiers to support your interpretation of the text.

If it is a synoptic question, you will also have to link your thoughts and ideas to Teen Vogue. Our guide to Teen Vogue will help you prepare for the assessment.

You might be interest in our analysis of Ghost Town which topped the UK charts during the 1981 civil unrest and communicates the dissatisfaction young people felt at that time. The representation of ethnicity is also important to Common’s Letter to the Free.

Essay Questions

  1. To what extent can websites reflect the social and cultural context in which they are produced?
  2. How do the codes and conventions of websites influence meaning?
  3. How are values and ideologies constructed by the codes and conventions of websites?
  4. “Website genres reveal wider questions about our culture’s values”. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  5. Explain why stereotypes and countertypes are used on websites.
  6. Explore how the representation of particular groups have been constructed in the Close Study Product The Voice.
  7. To what extent do the news values of The Voice reflect their ideologies?
  8. Explore how far representations in The Voice reflect their social and cultural context.
  9. To what extent do websites epitomise the audience’s changes in consumption?
  10. How does the impact of new technology continue to influence the production of websites?
  11. “Institutions will have to respond to changes in technology if they want to appeal to the audience”. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  12. How does The Voice provide a public service?
  13. Explain the importance of convergence in the contemporary media landscape.
  14. Referring to the Close Study Product The Voice, how valid is Stuart Hall’s reception theory to understanding the relationship between the producer and the user?
  15. To what extent does The Voice demonstrate we have reached the “end of audience”?
  16. “The success of websites depends on their interactivity and creativity”. To what extent do you agree with this statement.
  17. Explain why websites target specialised audiences.

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